This was the only way things could have reasonably ended, but given that nothing to do with the Calgary Flames in the last few years has ever approached reasonable, this is an unfortunate first.
Jay Feaster and assistant general manager John Weisbrod are out of a job -- hilariously and inconveniently inside team president of hockey ops Brian Burke's ludicrous and self-imposed extra-long Christmas trade freeze -- and none have yet come forward to truly praise them, but rather half-heartedly bury them instead.
The fact of the matter is both should have been gone at several points in the ignominious careers with the Flames, and should in reality never have been hired, but things were left in such a shambles by Darryl Sutter that anyone, even a guy who drove the Tampa Bay Lightning into the ground, must have seemed a more reasonable candidate.
It's important to remember, though, that Brian Burke was essentially brought in as an insurance measure against the inevitable failure of Feaster's reign, in much the same way Feaster was brought in as a counterbalance to Sutter. Feaster was the assistant GM to Sutter for a period of about five months before the latter was out on his ear and the former carrying a potted plant and box full of files down the hall. This summer, Burke was brought in at the start of September, and his time on the sidelines came to an end even faster than Feaster's.
But again, this was inevitable.
Feaster only stuck around this long because Burke wanted to be fair and make sure he knew with 100 percent certainty that the GM he was overseeing was in fact as incompetent as it appeared from the outside, and of course he was. Anyone who's watched the Flames these last few years, with the kind of preoccupied bewilderment and pity typically reserved for Steve Tambellini's Edmonton Oilers, knew that Feaster was put in an impossible situation and only didn't fail completely because no one could have failed in that position.
When ownership is making hockey decisions, bad things tend to happen, and that was the case with the Flames, who demanded that Feaster keep — in his words — “going for it” even as his roster aged into clear irrelevance and awfulness. They've now missed the playoffs in each of the last four seasons, by margins of five, three, five, and most recently 13 points. Those in the low and mid-single digits appeared enough to create the illusion of quality; if only a few more bounces went their way, and so on. But that included banking too heavily on the ability of Miikka Kiprusoff to be anything better than a little less than mediocre, or of Jarome Iginla's will to win being strong enough to make a team top-lined by Alex Tanguay and Olli Jokinen, with Ian White as a No. 3 defenseman, competitive.
The problem, to that extent, was that ownership walked into their preseason meetings with Feaster and basically gave Alec Baldwin's speech from Glengarry Glen Ross but with the words “Make The Playoffs” written on the board instead. They didn't care that the stench of failure hung heavily in the air and only dissipated like that inside-of-an-equipment-bag smell once the team got out there and skated around for a bit. They'd lose more than they won, usually not getting blown out, and they'd make it look respectable, but the evidence was there if you wanted to see it, and no one in a position to make decisions had the desire to do anything of the sort.
Judged by that criteria, Feaster was obviously unsuccessful, and that brings us to the first of any two points at which he should have been fired so that someone else could begin the process of a rebuild in earnest. Again, no playoffs for four years. But once everyone started coming around to the idea that a rebuild, even the hilarious idea of a “rebuild on the fly,” might be a good thing to at least attempt, the end result was inevitable.
A simple look at a list of Feaster's transactions reveals something of a mixed bag, as he spent gobs of money on awful players, re-signed some good ones to great contracts, made a series of bewildering trades, and so on, all in pursuit of a Quixotic goal of making the playoffs with a roster of Sancho Panzas.
Again, no one in the hockey world could have made anything work under those circumstances, and so it is perhaps unfair to view Feaster by those standards.
On the other hand, one could say that the second or third time he should have lost his job was when he tried to sign disgruntled Colorado Avalanche restricted-but-unsigned free agent Ryan O'Reilly to a two-year offer sheet worth $5 million per year against the cap.
Trying to acquire O'Reilly, a then-barely 22-year-old center who is responsible in all areas of the ice for the cost of just a first-, second-, and third-round pick seemed a very judicious move. However, he failed to understand that a little-known rule stated that anyone besides Colorado which signed him to an offer sheet must then have him clear waivers, which O'Reilly of course would not have.
Thus, Feaster would have been out Calgary's first three picks in last summer's draft, and had nothing to show for it. The only reason he kept his job, and any shred of dignity, is that Colorado wisely matched. He probably should have been fired anyway.
When things finally blew up as everyone knew they eventually would, and it came time, at long last, to stock up on draft picks and begin selling anything that wasn't nailed down with a no-movement clause (at one point nearly half of Calgary's roster had at least a no-trade), that was supposed to have been Feaster's time to make his mark on the team. And though that mark is there, and will be for years and years to come, one must ask whether this was quite the one he intended. In the last two drafts, Feaster picked four players in the first round and three more in the second and third combined.
The first of these, taken No. 21 overall in 2012, was Mark Jankowski, an extremely young and reedy center playing in a backwater Quebec high school league that never once produced even one drafted player until this one. He was taken 21st despite his having been ranked at No. 43 among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting, and 55th overall by International Scouting Services. This after Weisbrod saw him play and dominate one game against D-level Quebec teens, and started saying, “He's Joe Nieuwendyk,” in real life.
It was a baffling pick, especially when Feaster traded down from the No. 14 spot with highly-regarded players like Tomas Hertl, Olli Maata, Teuvo Teravainen, Scott Laughton, and so on still on the board. Minutes after that selection, Feaster swore up and down that a decade from that date, we would look back and view Jankowski as the best player selected in the entire draft. A year and a half later, if he becomes an even occasionally influential NCAA player, that has to be counted as a big win for Feaster
The next draft, Feaster got massive rounds of applause because he took three well-regarded players in the first round: Sean Monahan (an in-over-his-head but succeeding NHLer who should really be back in the OHL), Emile Poirier (currently shredding the Q to the tune of 20-24-44 in just 28 games), and Morgan Klimchuk (fourth in points, and third in goals on his own WHL team). Fair enough. He also passed on Valeri Nichushkin and a number of other perhaps better-regarded prospects, but there's really no sense in judging a draft six months out.
However, it's important to note two things here:
1) The Poirier and Klimchuk picks came as a result of his finally selling Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester for relative bargain basement prices. He also got some middling NCAA prospects out of Pittsburgh, and borderline NHLers Mark Cundari and Reto Berra from St. Louis. Berra in particular has been an unqualified disaster behind an awful Flames team this season.
2) Feaster has drafted well outside the first round, as Calgary currently owns the rights to the two best NCAA players at their positions, Boston College forward Johnny Gaudreau and Providence College netminder Jon Gillies. The latter in particular looks like the team's goalie of the future, and will in all likelihood start for the US at World Juniors later this month.
However, there's not much of a trick to drafting top-shelf prospects when you have four first-rounders in two years, and Feaster punted even that if you want to get right down to it.
And so what's Calgary left with? An NHL roster that would be mid-table in the KHL, a handful of decent prospects (some of which are already being mishandled by Bob Hartley, who one also suspects will be gone once the season ends), and an organization that really isn't in all that much better shape than when he came aboard.
But at least there's Brian Burke to pick up the pieces.
This is obviously a point of considerable concern because even with all the money in the world there was no way the Leafs team he built was capable of competing. A lot of the problems the team has now are those laid out by Burke in the first place; they're over-tough and under-skilled, and they're expensive because they can be and are expected to be, not because they deserve to be. If that sounds like a team in, say, oh I don't know, just to pick a random place as a for-instance, southern Alberta, that's because the comparisons are very easy to make.
Feaster, too, was overly enamored with the idea that toughness and big strong guys and never having the puck so you can hit the crap out of your opponent every time they come across the blue line and get a shot off. So was Sutter for that matter. Apparently Flames president Ken King, who ultimately and unfortunately for the organization makes these kinds of front office decisions, thinks the makeup of the team should reflect the values of the city: Cowboy hockey and so on.
Except this idea, brought on by one improbable and irreproducible Stanley Cup run before the Second Bettman Lockout, has of course proven unwise and ill-founded since the “New NHL” began. The league now puts a premium on speed and skill, and where before you might have been able to get away with mugging a Patrick Kane type as he came across the blue line, if you so much take a hand off your stick and touch his jersey, you're going to the box and conceding a power play goal shortly thereafter.
Four straight seasons of evidence has not been enough to convince any Calgary executive that this, then, is a road less traveled because a sinkhole opened up and swallowed it almost a decade ago. Sutter, then Feaster have both already fallen down this “grit” hole to the demise of their front-office careers, and now apparently whomever Burke selects as the poor sap to replace them will be sent down the same path with no directions at all other than “Stop when you're winning with 6-foot-5 guys who can't skate.”
It's a fool's errand down a foreboding and unsafe road, likely to be taken up by the aforementioned Mr. Nieuwendyk. Already carneys like Ray Shero must be chuckling up their sleeves at this sap coming up the midway with a fistful of good, smaller prospects who can be parted from them with the promise of a few fights. Deryk Engelland and a third-round pick for 5-foot-11 and out-of-favor Sven Baertschi is a trade that is not at this time inconceivable.
The next GM is going to be in a similar position to Feaster, having to clear roster dead weight (of which there is somewhat less now than three years ago) and pile up picks. The mandate for whomever is unfortunate enough to take over is going to be get big and get good, fast. That's not a recipe for a winning hockey team in the NHL. Not when you're starting from Calgary's position.
The Flames got a long overdue change in GM, but the long overdue change in philosophy is not forthcoming. This team is going to be bad for a real long time.